To say marine power is in its infancy in the United States is understatement. The first energy captured underwater didn’t make it to the grid until last September. And since then, the company behind the installation in northern Maine has had several teething problems. Still, while it’s getting off the ground, marine (and river) energy shows a lot of promise as a boon to remote communities, providing jobs, and, in some cases, cheaper electricity.
Ocean Renewable Power, which was recently listed in Fast Company's Most Innovative ranking, put in its first underwater turbine last summer, bolting the large steel structure to the sea floor. The TidGen’s blades have a unique helix shape, and a peak output of up 180 kW. The plan is to add two more in the next 18 months, and eventually to have an array of 20 machines spread across two sites. By 2016, the installation near Eastport could produce enough power for 1,500 homes, the company says.
The price is expensive, for now. Chris Sauer, CEO of Ocean Renewable Power, estimates the current rate at about 60 cents per kilowatt hour (including R&D costs). By comparison, onshore wind costs 9.6 cents, according to the Department of Energy. But he hopes to get his price down to 18 cents by 2016, and to 12 cents by 2020.
In the meantime, however, the project is providing at least 125 jobs and a host of economic benefits. Sauer says that’s one reason why the local power company, Bangor Hydro Electric, gave Ocean Renewable Power a 20-year purchase agreement at 21.5 cents per kWh—well above the market rate. The state of Maine also provided funding, as did the Department of Energy to the tune of $10 million.
"The reason we were able to negotiate this in Maine is they looked at the economic benefits we are creating," says Sauer. "They actually determined that the benefits exceed the subsidies by 1.8 times. In their minds, it is an investment in jobs and economic development. It was a rare display of good public policy, because it actually worked."
"If you go to Eastport and you talk about this project, the people will tell you this is their project. They are personally invested in this," Sauer says.
At the same time, Ocean Renewable Power is developing another project in the remote village of Igiugig, in Alaska—this time in a fast-flowing river. The 25 kW device is essentially a cut-down version of the ocean system and is funded through a $1.5 million grant from the state.
Currently, the village of 75 to 100 uses an expensive diesel generator. The fuel, which is flown in, is subsidized by the state, so officials are keen to find alternatives. From 2014, Ocean Renewable Power’s RivGen turbine will run in hybrid with the diesel system, alternating depending on the conditions.
"Most of these villages can’t afford this electricity. The state actually subsidizes them, so there is a big push to mitigate that cost," Sauer says.
Some other remote towns use wind turbines. But Sauer says underwater power is more consistent, and less susceptible to bad weather. "Our basic generator unit can be adapted for a lot of different applications."